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Beating the drum for resilience

Maslow outlined his hierarchy of needs nearly eighty years ago, and at the bottom of his pyramid came, inter alia, food, shelter and other physiological needs, with safety on the next rung up. It’s easy to conceptualise on a caveman level. As a rubric for modern life, in our deeply-interconnected economic society, the bottom rungs are often taken for granted, allowing us to concentrate on the higher tiers, like self-actualisation, relationship management and self-esteem.

However, complacency makes us vulnerable to changes in circumstance, and sometimes the net of security can turn out to be very illusory.

Risk is at once an easily-grasped concept and an elusive, slippery anomaly. Nassim Taleb, in various books – most-famously ‘The Black Swan’, has detailed all the ways we are bad at forecasting risk, either eliminating it in our estimates by averaging out freak occurrences, or by being so fixated on the rear-view mirror that we fail to see what is looming in the windshield.

Taleb has recently turned his attention more towards what makes a society fragile, or, in his phrase, ‘anti-fragile’. ‘Resilience’ has long been a watch-word in government, but it’s not one of which many people are aware: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/828813/20190902-Community_Resilience_Development_Framework_Final.pdf

It’s fine insofar as it goes, but is mostly concerned with the reaction of government, national and local, in the event of disasters. It also has that hallmark of bureaucratic papers that consider writing a policy enough in and of itself: I have never, for instance, heard of any instance locally of an “outreach session(s), workshops and conferences for individuals, businesses and community networks”, and, whatever other provisions are allowed for, you can only hope that the relevant authorities have been conducting preparatory exercises behind closed doors rather than just locking the documents in a filing cabinet to be referenced in the eventuality of an ‘incident’, especially when such a prospect seems remote. (It’s a truism that disaster is never expected, and that Cassandras are rarely heeded, only remembered.) From a personal level, it’s not a reassuring read, and certainly gives you no sense of how you, as a citizen, can expect to receive any meaningful help in extremis; nor, in anticipation, does it really contemplate ‘black swans’ or true catastrophes, which can sometimes be home-grown.

In ‘The Collapse of complex societies’, Joseph Tainter illustrated the mechanism by which societies reach a point of minimal returns on ever-more complex technological and social advancement whereupon they typically collapse back to a pre-complex state, usually unravelling into chaos.

Human societies have proven very good at forgetting the lessons taught by the ancients and repeated cyclically in history, that notional progress always carries within it the seeds of its own destruction – it’s the dot in the swirl in yin-yang.

Climate change and the War on Terror are two obvious examples of our ability to simultaneously recognise real threats and respond totally inappropriately. If a problem requires, say, glue or a saw, but you have only hammers, then you will look for nails to hit. We are also not so good at recognising the risks inherent in our own social and technological infrastructure, relying on insurance and government to mitigate the risks to a manageable level, but generally preferring to carry on with business as usual. Humans do not like change, introspection, redundancies or speedbumps to progress.

We build systems on the foundations of existing technology, and our ability to withstand shocks becomes less robust the more complex those systems and technologies become. Just consider the furore over 5G and Huawei as an example of the Trojan horses smuggled into every complex system. Utterly dependent on computers and the internet, there is little thought spared for how we would cope without them, through malfunction or malicious attack.

For example, even a shift from mechanical and hydraulic to electrical systems means that petrol pumps cease to work in a power cut. And when we no longer have petrol-fuelled cars, new vulnerabilities will emerge. Without easily-stored fuel, we would be limited to the available range of our battery-powered cars, with no prospect of replenishment.

In medicine, many once-common surgical procedures have been rendered so redundant by keyhole surgery that the medical community no longer remember how to operate without complex prosthetics and tools, all reliant not only on electricity but often also on complex IT systems themselves vulnerable to bugs or cyber-attacks.

Confronting these risks is supposed to be the job of The Minster for Government Resilience and Efficiency. This used to be Caroline Nokes; Google doesn’t seem to know who the new one is. Perhaps there was no replacement? However, in Nokes’ introduction to the last National Risk Register (2017) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/644968/UK_National_Risk_Register_2017.pdf

she states, “Throughout society (resilience) is based on the many volunteers and charities who provide so much, and most especially on the individual; on you. The risks in this document may seem beyond your control but your response to them is not. Being better prepared will make a huge difference even in the face of adversity.” (There is also a lot of ‘blitz spirit’ blather: “Resilience does not come easily but the UK has long experience. Call it what you will, but whether through the fabled ‘stiff upper lip’, ‘Blitz spirit’ or just a stubborn determination, our resilience can be seen at the forefront of our handling of emergencies. Within Government, this is based on robust risk management and tried and tested emergency response and recovery arrangements. At the front lines of an emergency, it is based on the unparalleled dedication and selflessness of our emergency services.”)

The list and ranking of risks makes quite interesting reading, especially in the light of the current media narrative which is highlighting corona virus, terrorism and bad weather.

Pandemics, space weather and industrial accidents all feature. Another financial crisis, which seems to me quite likely, doesn’t merit a mention. Nor does the risk of conflict in space, despite the US-Russia and US-China brinksmanship currently taking place there (even a limited military exchange would wipe out all satellites, and thus GPS, much mobile telephony and communications infrastructure at a sweep, and render space unusable for up to 100 years). Considered “medium-high risk” (in terms of likelihood) are cyber attacks; medium-risk are cyber-attacks on infrastructure and small-scale biochemical/radiological attacks. Scary stuff.

Despite being a natural consequence of infrastructure cyber-attack or extreme weather events, widespread electricity failure is considered quite unlikely, on the basis, viz Taleb, that it’s never happened before in the UK. But, “were it to occur, impacts would be very severe, causing widespread disruption to many critical sectors and wider society in general. The National Grid has a recovery process called ‘Black Start’ to recover the network from a total or partial shutdown. Based on current plans, Black Start recovery could take up to five days with potential for some additional disruption beyond this timescale in the event of significant network damage.”

The potential consequences of a national loss of power? “• fatalities and physical / psychological casualties; • disruption or loss of essential services, particularly transport, food, water, fuel, gas, finance, communications (all types), and education; • disruption to business (via lost working hours); and • if blackouts are prolonged, also potential disruption to health care, emergency services and emerging public disorder.”

Interestingly, I have personal experience of a sustained blackout, from south-west France at the end of 1999, where I was living at the time. We lost electricity for two weeks, phone services for over a week, and many people suffered severe damage to their homes. Following the massive storm that caused all the damage came a cold front; it was bitterly cold, and living conditions quickly became medieval. Food was scarce, and wood-fires the only source of heat. Fortunately, in rural France, almost everyone has a good supply of firewood, domestic gas is frequently bottled rather than mains-supplied, the French have a famous penchant for tinned food and keep their larders well-stocked and many people own generators. There was also a strong community-spirit that encouraged sharing and good humour, and because much power is delegated down to mayoral level, the ability of the ‘state’ to respond locally was much enhanced. The local bakers somehow kept going throughout, but actually, that was no accident: back then, most of them fired their traditional ovens with wood.

Resilience so often comes down to the availability of basic technologies.

These are exactly the kind so lacking in the modern world, and it is hard to see these kinds of priorities emerging in our current political and ideological landscape, fixated as it is on penny-pinching and austerity. It is illuminating that Nokes’s post is described not only as minister for Resilience but also for Efficiency. They are unlikely handmaidens. A good medical system, for instance, needs spare capacity, not ruthless efficiency, if it is to be able to handle the unexpected. Likewise, an efficient energy system is centralised and monopolistic, but this also represents an Achilles heel in terms of resilience: far better for households and communities to have an autonomous and reliable ability to generate, maintain and fix its own sources of heat and power.

Which brings us back to Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. In an emergency, we need, crucially, food, warmth, light and shelter.

A wood-burning stove and a single well-stocked wood store would see most homes through most emergencies. It keeps you warm and dry and can boil water and heat food. Pandemics and terror attacks are much more manageable when citizens can stay at home. Resilience is ideal when households can look after themselves.

At the next level, community centres, church halls and other public buildings could all benefit from having a stove, not just for added ambience at events but as crucial infrastructural contingency in the event of catastrophic events involving the displacement of communities from their homes, as in instances of flooding or other severe weather events.

If we were able to tick just these limited boxes, there would be much less need to rely on the (in)competence of central government and financialised industries, and would, at a stroke, make us all more happy, resilient and secure.

Remember:

  • a stove is an autonomous, near-instantaneous source of heat.
  • an average garden with a couple of log stores can hold up to 2 years of fuel, literally money in the bank, and more than enough to see you through a crisis.
  • a stove provides intense heat and ambient light.
  • on many stoves, you can cook and boil water for food, drinks or hot water bottles.

What else can you do to be prepared? Here are some basics:

  • keep a torch & spare batteries handy! Most power outages happen in winter, when it's dark for up to 16 hours a day!
  • Keep candles, matches and enough tinned and dried food to last a week.
  • Clean and fill your bath with cold water, in case your water supply gets cut.
  • If you don't have a stove, you can survive at home if you have a cooking flame: a gas barbecue, or, even better, a camping stove. With warm clothes, blankets, hot drinks and food, you can sit out short crises at home.
  • have a battery-powered radio so you can keep abreast of developments.
  • keep a charged battery pack to top up mobile phones.